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Embracing eclecticism

Following Anjali’s suggestion, I steered over to this post, “Bookshops are not dead. Long may it remain so.” Like me, James Higgs reacted negatively to Basheera Khan’s “No more bookshops? Good riddance.” There are some really good points in Higgs’s criticism, and I particularly like this one:

The binding and physical form of the book is an intrinsic part of its content, rather like the frame in a Howard Hodgkin painting. (Another example: James Joyce once made a fuss over the size of a full-stop in Ulysses.) You very much should judge a book by its cover.

Saying that a book can be reduced to a screen is the same thing as saying that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is as good as the original. Thank heavens when we won’t be made to traipse around a physical space, but can have master works beamed into our houses, eh?

This, I think, is one of the major tensions the e-book will have to resolve, or at least develop alternative solutions to, in the years to come. Do we want a perfectly fungible object that the reader is free to resize and redesign according to their own tastes and needs, or do we want a through-designed, screen-independent object that preserves the aesthetic and visual choices of the author and designer? I don’t think that digital can’t do the latter — take a look at iTunes’s recent attempts to bring back album art with iTunes LP, which beats the restricted visuals of the CD, at least. But e-books to date have largely not provided for that possibility, have not sought to create those kinds of objects. Which gives printed books the aesthetic high ground.

My bigger worry, though, with criticisms like Higgs’s, is the following:

  1. “the experience of reading a book is fundamentally different from reading a text on a reading device. Many – and I’d contend that these are mainly people who are not compulsive readers – will not care about this distinction, but this is the market that successful booksellers are targeting.”
  2. “Borders and Books etc are in trouble because they are not good bookshops. There is little to distinguish one shop from the next and, on the whole, their staff are not knowledgeable about the books they sell. They clearly don’t read reviews, or subscribe to major literary periodicals.”
  3. Most people don’t read seriously, and for them, these arguments will make no sense. But for the millions of people who do read compulsively, eReaders are not going to be universally welcomed.”

Now, I don’t care about the elitism in Higgs’s arguments. I’m an elitist reader, too, and I probably like the same books that he likes and would like the same bookshops and be frustrated by the same things in other readers. I do, however, object to the assumptions that

  1. the kinds of texts you like are inherently connected to the kinds of technology you like;
  2. that people who prefer either texts or technologies different from those you prefer are not “real” readers, not committed or compulsive or serious readers;
  3. that the class of readers you belong to is uniquely positioned to determine what the future of reading will look like, or at least ought to.

It’s this argument from authenticity that bothers me most. What’s more, it’s the same trick Khan tries to pull in her post; Khan thinks that “serious readers” would rather carry a thousand books than a handful, that they prefer the library to the bookshop — in short, that they look and act like she does.

I will say it again: reading includes many, many, many things, in every context. If we’re serious about charting the future of reading, rather than advocating for our particular preferences, we have to try to understand and account for all of them, and to do so with as few assumptions and as much good faith and openness to possibility as we can.

After all, the fact that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is fundamentally different from and not as good as the original is only an argument for preserving paintings; it isn’t an argument for abolishing JPEGs of them, or caring about their quality.

December 8, 2009 / Uncategorized


“Do we want a perfectly fungible object that the reader is free to resize and redesign according to their own tastes and needs…”

What if the reader has no desire to resize and redesign, but wants to pick up an object of art and be inspired by it? I do graphic design all day long; I have absolutely no desire to go home and be responsible to design my reading experiences.

In fact, it would be a mind-narrowing experience to do so because it would only increase my already-problematic echo chamber. I already have too narrow of a political worldview in the books that I read (example: I probably ought to read Going Rogue, but nobody is forcing me to so I likely will not); so should my worldview in terms of book design be limited to what I feel like doing? What a shame. Great design is great precisely because it represents something I would have never have thought of, and being exposed to it enriches my experience of, well, living.

I guess I’m extrapolating way beyond simple book design here, but hopefully you get the idea.

Tim Carmody says…

You caught the “or” clause, right? “Or do we want a through-designed, screen-independent object that pre­serves the aes­thetic and visual choices of the author and designer?” That’s the big alternative, with big trade-offs between them.

And maybe this is obvious, but maybe not — some authors/designers really LIKE the idea that their readers have control over their end-design, and many, many readers want (at least in some cases) a static object that reflects the vision of the creator.

One possible way out could be limited customization. Let’s consider something like font size. A creator of an e-book could create three-to-five looks, for small, medium, and large type sizes, maybe even in serif-and-sans-serif. Reading an e-book then would be less like formatting a document than it would be like choosing from a set of themes, all of which would be authorized and optimized for ideal beauty/readability.

This would essentially bring back the rough set of choices we have for print books — regular or large-print, illustrated or not — and import them into the e-book.

Again, there is no reason why this cannot be done.

Dan says…

I love this bit:
“I will say it again: read­ing includes many, many, many things, in every con­text. If we’re seri­ous about chart­ing the future of read­ing, rather than advo­cat­ing for our par­tic­u­lar pref­er­ences, we have to try to under­stand and account for all of them, and to do so with as few assump­tions and as much good faith and open­ness to pos­si­bil­ity as we can.”

But are most other commentators as interested in description as you? They seem pretty prescriptive to me. Or are you arguing that people who care about reading and books must care about many forms of reading, or their favored form will disappear with the rest?

Tim Carmody says…

Well, let me put it this way — if you’re trying to make an argument about the value or lack thereof of a certain technology or social institution, it’s a really bad shortcut to assume that you are the defender of the one true faith of reading, that people who don’t believe what you believe aren’t genuine or serious readers, or that they’re the victim of an ad campaign, or that they’re clinging to their own jobs, etc. Especially in prescriptive arguments, I think you always have to assume good faith in your opponents.

Also, once you start making predictions about the future, you’re in descriptive territory, whether you like it or not.

That said, I think this is really sharp: peo­ple who care about read­ing and books must care about many forms of read­ing, or their favored form will dis­ap­pear with the rest. Publishing, bookselling, etc. have long stood at the intersection of many niches. You might need to defend your niche as a matter of preserving your individual taste, but for preserving an eclectic institution like the neighborhood bookstore, it’s a disaster.

There’s no limb you can cut off of this body without triggering an effect everywhere else. For instance, it’s certainly the case that Ms Khan should care about what happens to bookshops if she wants to preserve libraries.

I’m new to this blog — all blogs, really, and am still not completely comfortable having a conversation with people who, #1 I haven’t met, and #2 aren’t all in the same room. Also you all sound extremely intellectual. I’m still trying to figure out parts of Mr. ? and the 24-hour bookstore. I feel compelled to contribute though because guess what? I own a real, live independent bricks and mortar bookstore. (And I’m too damned busy trying to keep the store alive to follow this blog as often as I’d like).

I think about the future of the book (and of my livelihood) all the time. I am a passionate, obsessive reader and I favor books on paper for recreational reading (I am not a digital native). Until recently I guess I was a bookservative, mainly for fear of the future. But the provocative discussions here along with conversations with a visionary friend have pulled me towards this new, creative way of thinking that comprises bookfuturism. Nonetheless, I’ll always love my store, my books, and putting “the perfect book” into a customer’s hands.

How will my bookstore evolve over the next several decades? How can I retain the essence of what I do — and how the store serves the community? It’s sounding like the current model will be obsolete pretty soon, at least in terms of financial viability. I can’t tell at this point how the American Booksellers Association is going to help us transition to the near future, but I doubt there will be any revolutionary changes — they are advocates for too many indies to try anything too radical too quickly. As for me, I’m planning to stick around and follow your conversations, perhaps try out an idea or two, and attempt to fashion a model that will fly in the real world. Maybe I’ll start a blog on the store website: Bookfuturism: A Case Study.

So glad I found you.

Dan says…

“Bookservative”! I love it. Pretty soon we’ll need a new booktionary to keep track of all the neobookisms.

Tim Carmody says…

The three that mean the most for me right now:

  1. Technofuturist
  2. Bookservative
  3. Bookfuturist


I’m pretty sure I invented the second; Joanne McNeil coined the third.

I’m always hoping that someone will step forward to defend the honor of “technofuturist,” explaining that in earlier usage it doesn’t mean at all what I make it mean. But so far, no takers.

Hi Tim, and thanks for your considered response. I think, though, that you’ve misinterpreted my argument. Either that or I wasn’t sufficiently clear in what I wrote. Probably the latter.

I never say that I think serious readers won’t welcome the eReader. I have a very good friend who hasn’t read anything on paper since September, and he’s a very serious reader, whose opinion I value highly. Note that I said “for the millions of people who do read compulsively, eReaders are not going to be universally wel­comed”. “Universally” is the key word there.

The fundamental point I’m trying to make is that a digital reading experience is, with available and foreseeable technology, a fundamentally different experience than reading a book. My suspicion is that eReader users either don’t care about the differences or are prepared to ignore them because of the portability. But that still leaves a large number of people who do care about the physical form, and for these people, independent bookshops are a boon, and will have a market for many years to come. Many if not most of the serious readers I know are at least partly addicted to the physical form of the book.

Of course there’s an imaginable point where the digital will overtake the analogue – but let’s not forget that books are themselves technology. I think it’s a fundamental mistake to think that digital = technology and analogue is something less.

I’m planning a post on what features an eReader would need to acquire in order to convert me away from physical books. I’m not sure what those will be yet, but I suspect that the technology is a long way off, and even then there’s a large doubt in my mind as to whether there will ever be a big enough market to entice someone to make one.

Tal Zaken says…

“The fun­da­men­tal point I’m try­ing to make is that a dig­i­tal read­ing expe­ri­ence is, with avail­able and fore­see­able tech­nol­ogy, a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence than read­ing a book. My sus­pi­cion is that eReader users either don’t care about the dif­fer­ences or are pre­pared to ignore them because of the porta­bil­ity. But that still leaves a large num­ber of peo­ple who do care about the phys­i­cal form…”

To me, it seems as though the only advantage that you could imagine in an eReader is its portability. While this may mostly be true as of current, there is always room for innovation. While the content of an eReader is stored digitally, is it actually fair to argue that it has no physical merits? Nostalgia, in the long run, is not a good enough argument for one medium over another. While popular tastes might tend toward paper and ink, a few generations down the line might find paper’s lack of durability to be more trouble than it’s worth. Perhaps people who use eReaders are embracing the change in physicality, rather than ignoring it or waxing apathetic toward it. I agree that there will always be a market for traditional books, but this is not because they are the only outlet for readers who care about the physical form.

Hi James! Thanks for your thoughtful follow-up. I’m sorry if I misinterpreted you, and it sounds like you and I are pretty much on the same page. Seeing books as a technology, insisting on the distinction between reading in different formats — if you get a chance to read around the site, you’ll see that advancing these two claims is right in my wheelhouse.

I’m pretty sure my brain did a little inversion and read your “not universally” as “universally not,” which is one of the things that set me off. Not a willfull misreading, I assure you.

I think I would still contest your claim that Kindle readers “don’t care about the differences or are prepared to ignore them.” I think many do care, in some cases very much. One of the strongest voices that I know personally on this issue has been my coblogger Robin, who was an early adopter of the Kindle and writes and sells stories for it, but is still frustrated that he CAN’T design page breaks, fonts, and controlled illustrations. As an academic, I love reading e-books on my computer, but find the lack of consistent page numbers and poor foreign character support infuriating.

The people who’ve acted like it doesn’t make a difference aren’t the readers, but the device manufacturers and publishers. The reason, I suspect, isn’t ideology as much as it is the technical challenge of supporting these design elements. Text is easy; easy on screens, processors, and battery life. But the future lies with integrated-media books. And as Robin has said elsewhere, this probably won’t happen until a player like Apple starts eating everyone’s lunch.

A post about how e-books might win you over sounds outstanding – I look forward to reading it! And I hope you’ll stick around here, too!

James, I don’t know if I’d agree that reading a book on an iPhone is fundamentally different than reading it in one of the many print editions of, say, Sherlock Holmes’ collected stories. But I think that we can agree that they are importantly different.

While you are right that there are a lot of ways in which eBooks are vastly worse than their printed counterparts, I think it’s worth remembering that new technologies don’t overtake old ones by winning point-by-point comparisons. They overtake old ones by being vastly better in one or two key ways. Is portability and the ability to store and easily purchase thousands of books a key difference?

Well, it certainly was for music. MP3s, especially MP3s as delivered by Napster were worse than CDs and Vinyl in almost every way. Encoding as often terrible, songs were mislabeled, you didn’t get album art, you couldn’t show them on your shelf to sexy visitors. But they won on being free and on being portable. The iPod with its tinny headphones and grey screen continued the trend. It let you have a lot of music, and that was about it. But it was enough.

Newspaper and magazines are going through a similar bout of pain right now. Reading the news on my iPhone or laptop is worse in almost every way then reading it in a good magazine or well-designer newspaper. But it wins out on being easy to acquire, quotes, and share. So it wins.

I love good design. The state of web-design drives me bananas and I buy magazines often. But I also often end up reading the online version of articles that I have in a real magazine just because of convenience.

So yes, maybe the eBook has a long way to convince you. But I don’t think it has as long as you think to convince a lot of people to make the switch.

One more point:

After all, the fact that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is fundamentally different from and not as good as the original is only an argument for preserv­ing paintings; it isn’t an argument for abolishing JPEGs of them, or caring about their quality.

At no point in my post do I ever suggest that the the eReader should be abolished, or that I don’t care about the quality of them as you seem to imply.

Jennifer, the wild diversity and interactivity of today’s reading isn’t precisely new—throughout the history of letters it’s much closer to the norm. Robert Darnton points out that early modern readers tended to read segmentally, not sequentially—they tended to jump from book to book, from letter to letter, and mashed up the results in self-made commonplace books to be kept, consulted, & shared. (Does it sound familiar? Could it be that linking & sharing aren’t simply disruptive artifacts of our tools, but basic ways of thinking & imagining that our tools help us to rediscover and extend?)There were, then as ever, big solid work-of-art books to wow and enrapture, but they never were the ne plus ultra of reading. By viral infiltration, the novel took over the readersphere and established itself as the normative reading experience—but it never was the best or the only way to read. As Robin’s “Novel in the noughts” post observes, readerly aesthetics change with the times & the techs; *and* we should feel free to go with the flow or to resist, to read as our fancy dictates. But we do well to undertand these changes not as disrupting or degrading, but as reawakening and enriching a fuller readerly experience.

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